Yes, We Canyon: President Obama Must Protect the Grand Canyon before Trump Takes Office
Over the past few weeks, President-elect Trump’s cabinet nominations have dominated the news. While many of Trump’s appointments are dubiously qualified for the positions they may soon hold, his nominations for key environmental positions stand out as particularly inappropriate.
Scott Pruitt—the Oklahoma Attorney General who Trump has chosen to lead the Environmental Protection Agency—is a climate change denier who is currently locked in a legal battle with the very organization he may soon control. Trump has also appointed former Governor of Texas Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, the same agency Perry promised to eliminate in 2012 when he ran for president. And Congressman Ryan Zinke—Trump’s less publicized but just as important nominee for Secretary of the Interior—supports expanding coal, oil, and gas exploration and has called for resuming construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
The amount of damage these men could cause is staggering. Extreme weather caused by climate change is already destroying communities up and down the East Coast, and that is only going to get worse if we fail to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the years to come. At the same time, fracking and coal mining are causing earthquakes, poisoning vital drinking water supplies, and destroying some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country. Putting people who deny the facts about global warming and prioritize special interests over everyday Americans in charge of the agencies that are meant to protect our land and water will only make these problems worse.
Fortunately, there are still opportunities for President Obama to prevent some of the worst consequences of Trump’s appointments. In particular, he can make sure that the Grand Canyon and surrounding areas are permanently protected from dirty and dangerous uranium mining.
Right now, mining companies with ties to the Koch brothers are planning thousands of uranium mine sites around the Grand Canyon. These mines, some of which are just six miles away from the edge of the Canyon, threaten to tear up the landscape in the area, kill off rare and endangered species like the bighorn sheep and the California condor, and destroy thousands of Native American archeological sites. In addition, past mining in the Canyon has already contaminated a number of streams and creeks with toxic waste, and the proposed new mines threaten to contaminate the entire Colorado River Basin, which provides drinking water for 25 million people throughout the Southwest.
In addition to their environmental consequences, these uranium mines also pose a risk to the economy in the areas around the Grand Canyon. Many businesses depend on the nearly five million tourists who visit the Canyon every year. If the proposed uranium mines are constructed, not only will the views so many people flock to see be marred by heavy machinery, but the two-lane highway that is now used almost exclusively for tourist travel will also become the main route for huge eighteen-wheelers hauling toxic waste and radioactive materials to and from the mines. Together, these factors will significantly reduce tourism in the area, which could force businesses to either lay off employees or close their doors permanently.
At the moment, the only thing holding these mining companies back is a temporary ban on mining around the Canyon that President Obama established in 2012. Of course, it is unlikely the Trump Administration will renew this moratorium.
Fortunately, President Obama can make these protections permanent before he leaves office by using his power under the 1906 Antiquities Act to create a new national monument that will permanently protect 1.7 million acres of land around the Grand Canyon from toxic mining. This monument, called the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument, enjoys popular support from citizens in the area. A poll released by the Grand Canyon Trust in October found that more than 80% of likely voters in the areas that would be affected by the monument support protecting the land around the Canyon. That kind of bipartisan support is almost unheard of, especially in today’s divided political climate; the President should take note.
President Obama has little more than a month left in office, but he can still make a huge difference for our land, our water, and our future. These next few weeks are a critical time, and people all over the country need to come together to oppose Trump’s environmental nominations and to call on the President to establish permanent protections for the Grand Canyon.
Jake McNichol is a campaign organizer for Environment New Jersey, based in New Brunswick and Trenton.